At least three local Internet users accused of downloading the film Dallas Buyers Club illegally have received letters demanding they pay $5,000 to the Hollywood studio that produced it.
Samuel Seow Law Corporation, which represents Voltage Pictures, sent the letters to the three after they wrote back in response to letters it sent out earlier this year. The Straits Times understands that the latest letters could also have been sent out to others who responded.
The first batch of demand letters went out in early April to 77 M1 Internet subscribers. Another batch was sent to hundreds of Singtel and StarHub users in June. Singtel subscriber Louis Lim, 42, who received the letter said he was told to pay $5,000 - even though he claims he did not download the movie.
"If I'm guilty as claimed, I'm sure the firm would have sued me in court and not merely told me to pay up," the events management consultant said.
He received his first letter from the law firm on June 21.
He replied in an e-mail stating that he did not download the movie but had rented out a room on his premises to four tenants.
Late last month, he received a second letter asking for details of the tenants as well as a "settlement sum" of $5,000 to avoid a protracted litigation.
One user who spoke to The Straits Times but did not want to be named said he had written back to make an offer of less than $1,000. This was rejected and the lawyers told him to pay $5,000, which he called "exhorbitant".
The Law Ministry told The Straits Times that it has received two complaints and 26 queries - for the first time in five years - about "speculative invoicing".
Speculative invoicing - a common practice in the United States and Britain - is the practice of rights holders sending letters to alleged intellectual property (IP) pirates to demand that they pay up to avoid being taken to court.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam clarified in Parliament in April that the act of sending a letter of demand "is not wrongful by itself unless it contravenes a lawyer's professional obligations". For instance, lawyers are not allowed to use threats of criminal proceedings to further civil claims.
Meanwhile, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore has advised Internet users to question the accuracy of the investigations carried out by copyright owners, and ask for more evidence if they feel they had been wrongly accused.
It has also recommended the price of a DVD of the movie in question as a possible settlement sum.
Market observers suggested that the hefty price tag of $5,000 is meant to deter future infringement, but some lawyers disagreed with the approach.
Mr Lau Kok Keng, IP lawyer at Rajah & Tann Singapore, said: "In the absence of proof of actual incurrence of damages and reasonable expenses, it would be difficult for the rights owner to justify requiring an infringer to pay damages of $5,000 just for downloading a single movie title."
When asked about the latest set of demand letters sent to Internet users, Mr Samuel Seow, managing director of Samuel Seow Law Corp, said: "We negotiate settlements on an individual basis with infringers, depending on various factors."